Talk:Henry O. Pollak
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Henry hired me for the M&SRC in 1967, and I worked in his Center for nearly 16 years. I am amazed that anyone would call Henry's research "information theory". The "information theory" authority in the Center was (the late) Aaron Wyner, and as far as I know, Henry and Aaron never worked together. (The old 1950s idea of "information theory" was being referred to then as "Shannon theory", with whole field generally known as "communication theory", with sub-fields of "coding theory", "transmission theory", "switching theory", "queuing theory", and even "control theory".) I would place Henry solidly in the area of "applied mathematical physics" or "mathematical physics applied to communications". Sometimes Henry would venture away from mathematical physics -- the most notable being his abiding interest in "Steiner minimal trees", or graphs that connect points in the plane using lines of minimum total length. He enjoyed calling this a "trivial" problem, in the original sense of tri-via, or three-roads, since any "supplemental" points in the tree will be where 3 lines meet (at 120-degree angles). Henry's real strength was not mathematics, but administration, to which he devoted amazing energy and effort, and achieved corresponding impressive success. He served as president of both the A.M.S. and M.A.A. Despite his career in industrial and applied math, he never joined S.I.A.M. -- he said they kept asking him to join --- so they could elect him their president! He told them No Thanks, I already have enough to do. Henry said that growing up his two loves were math and languages, and deciding between them was a close call. He noted that immigrants would have a discernable accent in English depending on whether they learned it before or after 12 years of age -- and since he came to the US exactly at age 12, he had an accent, but a slight one. He maintained his interest in foreign lands through his extensive stamp collection. And of course, he had a professional interest in math education, since the Bell System had a great need for employees skilled in mathematics. Math ed was not a "hobby" for him -- he viewed it as a big part of his Bell Labs job, being the Bell System's leading authority in both mathematics and the training of young people in mathematics. He did a great job in both. -- William M. Boyce. —Preceding unsigned comment added by WmMBoyce (talk • contribs) 10:33, 3 July 2009 (UTC)
I always thought of Henry as being right at 10 years older than I, and actually, it was 10 years and within a week of 4 months. He came with his family at about 12 when his native Austria was taken over by the Nazis. I'm pretty sure he was not Jewish, probably Catholic, maybe Lutheran, but I imagine the Nazis were everything someone like Henry would despise. He made me a dept head at age 30, but he himself was *Center Director* at age 30, in 1958, I suppose, and he must have held the post nearly 40 years. Aaron Wyner was my age, so I knew him better than many, but the Information Theory expert more Henry's age was E.N.(Ed) Gilbert, a mathematician of incredible talent and versatility, especially in discrete math and probability. Henry wrote several papers with Ed, but mostly discrete math and combinatorics (and Steiner trees), not information theory. Ed was the highest-paid non-mgt person in the Math Center, and Henry worked hard to make sure Ed was paid as much as the highest-paid Bell Labs physicist -- to make the point that mathematicians were just as valuable as physicists. ## One of Henry's strong points was his enthusiastic support of women and minorities. Other than taking care of Ed's pay, Henry's next concern was that because of her age, and being a late-bloomer, Bell Labs made it difficult to adequately compensate the remarkable talent that was F.J.(Jessie) MacWilliams. Finally Bell Labs switched from an age-based standard to a years'-experience standard, under which Jessie was clearly NOT in her declining years, but at the height of her powers, and her salary level finally soared. Although he never learned programming (like almost all the research staff of his age), he greatly appreciated scientific programming and programmers, and he made sure the Center had the best, and paid to match -- and the vast majority of them were women. The first Math Center programmer assigned to work with me had only a BS, but was Phi Beta Kappa, and went on to earn a doctorate in scientific computing in a few years. She was probably the best of the group, but the others were almost as good.
Physically Henry was (and is) extremely impressive, well over 6 feet, about 200 pounds, with an invariant big smile, whether things are going poorly or well. If poorly, the smile projects --"We'll conquer this obstacle as we have the others, and the greater the challenge, the greater the glory in overcoming it!" No one could feel down around Henry. He just exuded confidence and optimism. And as Dizzy Dean said (more or less), "It ain't bragging if you can go out and do it." Henry earned his bragging rights over and over, virtually a 1.000 batting "average". As long as I was doing things that he understood, I was a favorite of his. My take on things constantly bemused him. He read to us dept heads the resume of a PhD working at Western Electric Labs who had high recommendations from his bosses, who thought he would be better off at Bell Labs research. When he finished, I threw out "and he's making 19.5". Henry put on a big smile and said, No, 19.6. (At Bell Labs, someone really good with those credentials would have been around 22k per year.) For a while, Henry put me in charge of arrangements for visiting speakers, and a notable one was Uncle Paul (Paul Erdos, who dropped in from time to time). I reserved the biggest lecture room available and ordered the maximum number of chairs that the room would hold. Still, I watched Uncle Paul's lecture as the only standee. I reported to Henry that I had underestimated the crowd by 1. With a big grin, he retorted that "you didn't allow for a seat for Paul's mother". (While Paul's mother was alive, she traveled with him everywhere, and even though she understood no English, she gazed at him adoringly all through his lectures, as he was her greatest gift to the world.) Anyway, while I was on Henry's good side, it was a lot of fun. I'll defer the story about how Henry came to admire and respect Steve Rice. Also how he would often adopt my proposals, but not credit me, nor even tell me he had done it. Hey, part of the price for working for (and with) the phenomenon that was (and still is) Henry.
XXXXXXX the downside XXXXXXX The third sentence from the end is a joke. It describes the work done in departments that Henry nominally supervised, but statistics, data-analysis, and economics were as foreign to Henry as knowing Sioux. He outsourced statistics & d-a to part-time John Tukey and the statistics dept head(s), and economics to consultant Bill Baumol and the eco dept head, a recycled mech-engr, with whom I had differences. (I didn't want to work for him, and he didn't want me -- at least we agreed on that.) So I ended up doing eco and finance in a math dept, not the eco dept. Henry didn't understand what I was doing, and he had the tragic flaw of assuming that if he didn't understand something, it couldn't be worth much. His heavy administrative load meant that even if he wanted to learn a new field after age 30, he didn't have time to do it. Classic statistics was a lot like mathematical physics, but Tukey (a chemical engineer by training) thought the "classic" had been picked clean, and computer-aided data-analysis was the future of statistics. Despite Tukey's efforts, the statisticians felt short-changed by Henry, and tried to get out from under him. They finally succeeded, moving to Max Matthews' psychology center. But shortly after, Max took a leave of absence, and his acting replacement was --- Henry!! now directing 2 centers, and stretched even thinner. The statisticians revolted, and they finally got their longed-for independent Statistics Research Center. And finally Max returned to reclaim his center and relieve Henry. The eco problem solved itself when, having been ordered to break up, AT&T decreed it would no longer support eco at the Labs, and the eco dept was quickly disbanded. Then I finally left for Wall Street, and Henry could go back to his beloved math-physics and math education. I understand Henry almost fainted when he got the word that, by leaving him, I had doubled my comp. I don't think he has learned yet that in a few years it was up to 4X. -- William M. Boyce —Preceding unsigned comment added by WmMBoyce (talk • contribs) 13:25, 3 July 2009 (UTC)
Picture on commons
"Henry Pollak" appears in the description of the commons:File:Bell telephone magazine (1922) (14776036893).jpg, related to the use of a Bell video phone in a sales action. The date "1922" is probably wrong; the year "1965" appearing in the categorization seems more appropriate. Since Henry O. Pollak was at Bell during this time, the image may be relevant to this article, possibly even show him (however from behind, anyway). - Jochen Burghardt (talk) 12:49, 19 October 2016 (UTC)